NEW YORK — Sports fandom is an addiction; it doesn’t go away in midwinter when your seasonal teams are dreadful; March Madness is, well, in March; pitchers and catchers are still working out in high school gyms and the Westminster Dog Show is a fast-approaching headline.
Today, if you’re a New York fan particularly, with the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders all wallowing in the kind of meh play that drains the juice out of both hope and despair, and particularly on Super Bowl Sunday with our football franchises in a catastrophic state of haplessness, you’re fundamentally lost.
OK, there is the powerful New York Yankee lineup to look forward to, with its promise to rocket countless baseballs into the stratosphere. But opening day is a distant horizon, and we’ve been dreaming that dream for weeks now since Aaron Judge and his 52 homers almost carried them to the pennant and then Giancarlo Stanton, with 59 of his own, came aboard in a December trade. An addiction needs to be fed more regularly than that.
So the really hard-core fan — by which I mean someone like me, who is so pathetically hooked on local sports news that the hiring of a new defensive coordinator has an effect on my day — might find himself in deep consideration of whether the New York Jets should take another chance on an equal-parts talent and pain in the neck like pouty, stubborn defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson. (Probably not.) Or, as I confess to doing, arguing in the comments section of Giants.com that Eli Manning still has a couple of years left in him, so the new general manager ought to forget about drafting one of those touted-but-flawed West Coast quarterbacks and take the running back from Penn State instead.
There is, of course, a football game this weekend. And as foul luck would have it, New York football’s two most loathsome rivals are contending for the championship. I’m going to avoid naming them for as long as I can, especially the team that always seems to be there — eight out of the 16 times the game has been played in February, which is every year except one since 2002. My friend Felicia, who lives in Maine, deep in Red Sox nation and has her other favorite local team playing in the game, offers a semi-consolation: “Derek Jeter finally retired. Someday Tom Brady will, too.”
Anyway, speaking of February, there’s something ironic in holding what is allegedly the most important U.S. sports event of the year this month. The first couple of weeks of February were, for decades, acknowledged as the true doldrums of the sports year, a miserable desert of irrelevant college basketball games and midseason yawners from the NBA and the NHL.
But not to be outdone a mere three months after a World Series game was first played in November, the NFL, stretching its schedule out like a cat waking up from a nap, plunked the Super Bowl down in February. Great, right? A big sporting occasion where none ever was before, a steppingstone in the previously unfordable chasm between the Australian Open and spring training.
Except, not really, no, largely because at the same time, the Super Bowl inflated to become not so much a ballgame as a happening, like the Oscars but with concussions. And anyway, if you don’t live within a three-hour drive of Cape Cod, your team hardly ever gets there.
Actually New York fans have been rewarded more than most — the Jets actually triumphed in their single Super Bowl appearance, now a yellowed memory (Ah, 1969! Broadway Joe Namath!) and the New York Giants have made it five times, winning four — including two against the team that makes me spit, in 2008 (a victory propelled by the famous helmet catch by an otherwise forgotten receiver, David Tyree) and 2012 (featuring, for my money, an even more miraculous catch by another forgotten receiver, Mario Manningham).
But in any case, unless your local team is one of the lucky annual pair, the competition on the field takes a back seat to the endless pregame blah blah blah, the halftime extravaganza, the rollout of new advertisements at a cost that might otherwise stabilize Social Security, and the betting line in Vegas, where gamblers risk enough to underwrite a single-payer health care system. I’m old enough to have watched, with interest, the first Super Bowl, which was no contest and no big deal; Sunday’s is the 52nd, or Super Bowl LII, as befits the silly grandiosity of it all. Justin Timberlake? Really?
This year especially, there was much to feel sour about. The Colin Kaepernick national anthem protest stirred up dueling camps of outrage — and a presidential admonishment — so no matter which side of the issue you were on, the harmless partisanship of a Sunday afternoon in front of the TV was tainted with political poison.
The number of injured premier players went through the roof — the Giants lost Odell Beckham Jr. and three other receivers in one game — and Ryan Shazier, a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker whose terrifying spinal injury caused him to lose feeling in his legs, is facing a murky future.
Then there are the endless video reviews and the untenable rule that determines when a catch is or isn’t a catch, which even the announcers seem unable to parse.
And on top of all of that, you’re in New York, in February, after months of living and dying with the Giants (3-13) and/or the Jets (5-11).
Super Bowl? Cyanide? I’m thinking it over.
(A sympathetic nod here to the Minnesota fans, whose Vikings blew the chance to be the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium with the kind of embarrassing ineptitude in the NFC championship game that lingers for a generation. The one time the Super Bowl was played in the Meadowlands, in 2014, followed a season in which the Jets and Giants were a collective 15-17.)
It’s possible I’m overreacting. My wife, Jan, is looking forward to the game; it’s a great time to go to the movies, she said. But I also checked in with some of my football-watching friends.
“It’s a forced shared event,” Bob, a professor at Yale, wrote to me. “Reminiscent of New Year’s Eve. And anyway it’s getting difficult to watch football at all without thinking of long-term brain damage.”
Another pal, Josh, a television executive, wrote: “Pyrotechnics and overwrought hoopla. It’s all too loud and too long, and there’s way too much smoke. Exeunt the poor players. Bring on the commercials!”
And then Avery, a novelist, piped up: “Colin Kaepernick was clearly blackballed in a nasty collusion of NFL owners, so tell me why I follow this sport?”
These guys aren’t generally so crabby (well, Avery is, but that’s another story). But they are Giant fans, like me. (Avery is a season-ticket holder; maybe that’s the explanation.) They’re coming over to my place to watch the game. We can’t agree on who to root for. My brother wants the Eagles to lose by 40, but there’s a #NeverPatriots faction, too.
“It’s a Hobson’s choice,” said my friend Amy, a theater consultant. “They both stink.”
I’m not a betting man, but I think Philly is going to squeak by. Not that that will bring me any satisfaction. Thank goodness for the Olympics.